Knowledge is power — or so the saying goes. But lately, it seems some public entities are acting as if releasing information is disempowering.
What happens when residents want information from their government? How do citizens who are deeply and personally concerned about governmental actions — or inaction — fare when they seek information? What happens when they’re worried about the air that they breathe or the water they drink?
The result of their efforts can be both inspiring and dismaying.
Inspiring, because these two stories demonstrate the courage, tenacity and fortitude of Denise Durbin and Leslie Weise. Dismaying, because they illustrate the difficulties citizens face when trying to extract and make sense of information from governmental sources.
On Jan. 14, the Business Journal published a story about water contamination in wells serving three small water providers in the Fountain Valley. Some wells were shut down through what district managers called “an abundance of caution.”
The contaminants are perfluoroalkyl substances — chemicals reportable to the Environmental Protection Agency, but not yet regulated. Multiple researchers have found these substances, first developed by DuPont in the 1950s, are linked to significant health risks even in low concentrations.
Alarmed by the story, Security apartment manager Durbin tried to find out more. Wondering whether “health issues that my children and I have developed over the last several years could possibly be related to consuming the tap water,” Durbin said she consulted her doctor, who advised her to have her blood tested for PFOs.
“It took over 20 calls and about as many e-mails to the EPA, [Center for Disease Control], El Paso County Health Department and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to finally get an answer to where we can get a blood test done,” Durbin wrote in an email. “The cost is at least $800 per person and insurance does not cover it, so unfortunately we will not be able to get this done.”
Durbin didn’t give up. She spent weeks researching PFOs, and was appalled by what she found.
“I came across the water test results that the EPA conducted between January 2014 and August of 2014,” she said. “In these results it shows 15 wells are contaminated with high levels of five different PFC chemicals. I feel like we are headed down the same road as Flint, Mich., with these chemicals. No one wants to take responsibility and they just hope the problem will go away. I keep getting the runaround anytime I talk to someone from the EPA or health departments. I just wrote to Gov. Hickenlooper, [Sen. Cory] Gardner, [Sen.] Michael Bennet and [Rep.] Doug Lamborn, so hopefully one of them will step in soon.”
She spent days learning about the issue, contacting experts and questioning regulators.
To its credit, the EPA reached out to Durbin and set up a conference call.
They explained that she had misread some of the results, noting that most of the wells are below the provisional limit set by the EPA.
Durbin is still skeptical, though. And she isn’t alone. In a scathing letter delivered to the EPA April 25, the international Environmental Working Group said that the agency’s “glacial pace and uneven approach to protecting the public from this highly persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic chemical borders on an abdication of the agency’s responsibility to protect public health.”
They illustrate the difficulties citizens face when trying to extract information from governmental sources.
“I’m a single mom and I’m not rich,” said Weise, a self-employed Monument attorney. “I could be out making money instead of spending so much time on this.”
Weise is trying to force Colorado Springs Utilities to release a confidential document concerning airborne pollutants emitted by the downtown Drake coal-fired power plant.
Her efforts are the culmination of years of study, during which the clean-energy proponent painstakingly acquired enough expertise to challenge the assertions of CSU managers as well as state and federal regulators.
Weise is better equipped for such a fight than most.
“In 2004 I moved to Colorado to pursue a master of law degree in environmental and natural resource law and policy at the University of Denver,” Weise said. “Since 2005 I have focused my professional work with energy-related technology companies to further my personal interest and concern for facilitating ways to reduce carbon [dioxide] and other greenhouse gas emissions so as to reduce climate change impacts caused by human- related activity.”
She has often expressed her concerns about Drake, joining other residents in urging the board to shutter the plant.
As she analyzed reassuring statements from utility officials, she became convinced that regional residents were being systematically deceived.
She was particularly concerned by CSU’s refusal to make public a 2013 study by its technical consultant “to review air quality data and perform a scientific analysis concerning the El Paso County region’s compliance with the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for Sulfur Dioxide.” Invoking CORA, she formally requested a copy of the study in 2015, when she first learned of it. CSU refused.
Undeterred, Weise filed suit in District Court. CSU filed a motion for summary judgment, citing attorney-client privilege.
“Colorado Springs Utilities relies on the attorney-client privilege and work product doctrine to justify concealing critical public health information from the public and its own citizen-owners,” Weise wrote in her response to the judge. “…This factual information should be made public to help guide a governmental decision that is intended to protect public health generally and the health of this plaintiff and her son specifically, who attends public school 2.5 miles from the Martin Drake Power Plant.”
The case will play out in court, she said.
“The pre-trial on this is scheduled for May 13, and the actual trial for May 20,” Weise said. “I could have used a few more days to perfect this, but given my lack of unlimited resources, we did the best we could.”
Her efforts include an 18-page response to CSU’s motion, as well as a 25-page declaration. It may prove to be a quixotic quest, but Weise presses on.
“Given my experience seeking air-quality related information concerning the Martin Drake plant,” she said in an email, “I am convinced that Utilities is engaged in a disinformation campaign with the public that rises to the level of criminal misconduct. When the chief environment, health and safety officer responds to public inquiry about what is emitted from the ‘smokestacks’ only with reference with the ‘steam’ coming out of the ‘cooling towers’ (and even including a diagram to further distract), but fails to mention over 80 different pollutants and toxins generated from burning coal that the three smokestacks at Drake disperse over our community, Mr. [David] Padgett is engaged in a misrepresentation of the facts that directly impacts our knowledge about the quality of air we are breathing caused by this very old, and very polluting power plant.”
Without addressing the merits of Weise’s suit, Councilor Jill Gaebler said: “I trust my attorneys.”
Will Weise prevail in court? And if she does, will the long-concealed information support her claims? No one knows yet, but one thing is clear.
Neither woman will give up or go away.